Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Vatican City

As Conclave Approaches, Doors Close To Journalists

By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 14, 2005

During a 10-day period surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican practiced a remarkable degree of openness and enjoyed overwhelmingly positive press coverage of the pope’s legacy and the church’s activities.

However, as the church prepared for one of its most secret events, the doors closed once again to journalists.

On April 9, the day after the pope’s funeral, the cardinals agreed not to give interviews, in order to concentrate more fully on prayer, reflection and private discussion before the start of the conclave April 18.

Many reporters who flew to Rome for the papal transition felt let down.

“I’m disappointed as a journalist. And it’s especially disconcerting because we know that the Americans are probably going to be the only ones who observe it,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, editor in chief of America magazine.

He predicted that while the U.S. cardinals would “follow the rules” and end all press contact Italian and other cardinals would continue to talk to their favorite journalists on background.

Many church officials in Rome said the pope’s death and funeral offered a “teaching moment” like no other. Around the world, TV viewers saw hour after hour of live broadcasting that spotlighted the outpouring of affection for the late pope while explaining how the church works and what it believes.

“We did the entire funeral Mass live, and we were allowed to catechize in the sense of explaining the different moments of the Mass. For a major network to do that was just fantastic for the church,” said U.S. Father Thomas Williams, a member of the Legionaries of Christ who did commentary for NBC.

From the time the pope fell gravely ill a few days before his death, the Vatican was unusually open about the pontiff’s fading health and seemed to accept that his passing would be a major media event. The outpouring of prayers and affection was broadcast around the world.

For several days after the pope died, cardinals in Rome—especially those from the United States—were available to the media for additional comment on Pope John Paul and for general insights into the coming conclave.

The abrupt halt in media contact had been in the cards for some time, however. Some cardinals pushed for a no-interview policy soon after their daily meetings began April 4.

Father Reese said that while the decision was disappointing it was not a complete surprise.

“I think they recognized that in the period up to the funeral it was very positive coverage—the big crowds coming, everybody talking about the legacy of John Paul II,” he said.

“But they were also quite aware that as soon as he was buried the story was going to change, and it was going to be about who’s the leading candidate, about conflict and division, which is the kind of press they don’t want,” he said.

Judging by the rules Pope John Paul revised in 1996 for the next conclave, he would probably have agreed with the media ban. He mentioned the need for secrecy 17 times and provided that well before the conclave begins each cardinal take an oath promising not to divulge information about matters “in any way related to the election of the Roman pontiff.”